Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Book Review - Food: A Love Story (Jim Gaffigan)

Food: A Love StoryFood: A Love Story by Jim Gaffigan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Are you lazy and proud of it? Are you a foodie/eatie? (learn about the difference in the book). Do you love humor?

If you said "Yes" to any of the above (or all three, like me), this book is for you. Now, go order some Deep! Deep! dish Pizza from Little Caesars and prepare to enjoy this book.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

We DID start the fire - Part 2

In Part 1, I dwelled upon how the 90s were a time of great change in India, as our nation started reducing the development gap vis-a-vis the Western world and saw transformations on many fronts. I took a narrow perspective of the situation - pop culture driven - but I do feel that pop culture gives a fairly decent view to the society's soul, and dare I say, the Aam Aadmi's soul. As I mentioned then, I originally intended Part 1 to be along the lines of We Didn't Start the Fire, but decided to move that to Part 2. And thus, here we are.

Anybody who has grown up in India in the 90s, should first read this and then realize that each of us have our own impression of the 90s, characterized by fond memories - maybe not large in number, but definitely clear as yesterday. For some, they were the shows on TV and the characters that were idolized and imitated. For others, the products sold in the 90s, that went out of fashion soon after, but are still in memory. If I were to ask you write down the first 10 things that come to your mind at the mention of the 1990s, each of us will take a trip to our happy place and will come up with our own version of why the decade was so awesome. A natural extension to this was, what if someone sat down and tried to chronologically order these memories, into a timeline of events? Maybe try and put a date onto these memories, to get a basic impression of how those formative years progressed. So, I began this experiment and tried to recollect events/memories from different years of the decade. The strategy was to pen down the first few recollections and move on to the next year, lest a soppy memoir start taking shape. As you can imagine, most recollections are on a personal level so a Manorama Yearbook is unlikely to manifest itself in the following paragraphs. A lot of common themes will be found: Sports, Movies and Television, all being major constituents of my daily calendar. Let the time travel begin!

1993: Earliest first-hand recollections. Other memories all second-hand accounts from the past. Most memories cricket-related. Expected. Remember the Hero Cup, and that over from Tendulkar. Kumble runs through the West Indies in the final, 6-12. Eden Gardens celebrates Diwali, again. The year of Darr and Baazigar. SRK comes of age. All the rage in town. Stumbled upon this recently. Sign of things to come? Flop Show reruns on TV. Originally aired in 1989. Discovered many years later that only 10 episodes were ever shot. Hugely surprised. Funny since Day 1. Zee TV showed Saanp Seedi, with a life-size board on which they played Snakes and Ladders, for real. High amazement levels. Sunday nights meant Superhit Muqabla, on TV. Among the many, many excellent shows on DD Metro.

1994: First full year of memories. Many great movies. Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. Watched it on VCR. Mohra. Raveena Tandon, the mast mast cheez. Could not take a bus trip without the song being played. Andaz Apna Apna. Watched it first a few years later, though. Wasn't a box office hit. Ha! Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, perhaps the first visit to a movie theatre. Simply could not comprehend where the dog got the brains to carry the note to the right person. First introduction to the amazing ways of Bollywood. This was all over the charts. Songs like these are seen in a new light, when you watch the video again, as an adult. Over in the cricketing world, one Sachin Tendulkar is invited to open the batting in an ODI, after 5 years of playing in the middle order. The rest is well documented. WWE enters life in a big way. Trump cards are what the cool boys play. Also leads to owning Cricket trump cards and Aircraft trump cards. Distinct memories of comparing wingspans. Watched WWE pay-per-views on video cassettes. Earliest recollection of a match. Had to be WrestleMania. Toothpick usage increases, courtesy Razor Ramon. Dad gifts toy championship belt on Birthday, made of weird plastic/polymer thingy. Wore it, ALL.THE.TIME.

1995: This happened, I recall. Exciting series, based on description on TV. West Indies' home matches go on way past midnight. The ONLY excuse to stay up late at night. Dad, a perfect partner in crime. Big Fun chewing gum comes up with its own line of cricket cards. High consumption ensues. Mom not happy. Sid Monga refers to the said phenomena in this gem. Worth your while, reading that. Earliest recollection of book cricket, where your inner cricketer could find expression, albeit artificially. Favorite pastime for a long time. DDLJ. Discover few years later that Senorita is not a first name. The defining movie of the decade, perhaps. Seniors in school bus discuss Santa Barbara, Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch, new entrants to the Indian TV market, courtesy Star TV. Wonder what the fuss is all about. Puberty still a few years away. Some brilliant shows on TV. Hum Paanch, Dekh Bhai Dekhand Zaban Sambhal Ke. Early inclination towards sitcoms.

1996: This happens on 1st Jan 1996. Begin admiring Aussie cricket and Channel 9 broadcasting. World Cup heartbreak at the Eden Gardens. Shocked to see Kambli in tears. Jayasuriya's annus mirabilis. Fastest 100, Fastest 50, using a spring-laden bat. Jury still out on the last one. Dada makes a debut hundred at Lord's. Prince of Cal-koot-ah is born. First ever Sahara cup, in Toronto. Raja Hindustani is the hit movie of the year. Long Kissing scene. Don't remember watching it. The movie theatre could have cut the scene from the print, maybe. First experience of the brilliantly made, The Crystal Maze. Anyone who has all seasons, please contact. Host looked like a Bollywood sci-fi villain. Had also watched Mr. India and Shaan in a similar time frame. Confusion all around. The interestingly named Omung Kumar hosted the popular 'Ek Minute', with the sequel being 'Aur Ek Minute'. Got introduced to Contra, Pole Position and ExciteBike, at the local "video game parlor". Much time pass, and time waste. Further compounded by Disney Hour, I dream of Jeannie and Small Wonder. Started stocking up on Khushboo wale pens.

1997: Lovely English teacher in School. Each one of us probably has an "English Teacher" story from school. Start listening to Indipop; Sony and Zee give it a lot of airtime. The beginnings of music appreciation. Want to watch cartoons before school. Sis overrides it with a news program. Says it's good for you. No idea whatsoever. Sachin is captain of the cricket team. Results not as expected. Good job giving it up within a year. Border released. Too crowded, had to watch it from the third row. Bye-bye neck. Remember Gupt being a hit. Had no idea females could be villains. Eye-opener. Dil to Pagal Hai. Crazy dance-off scene when Karishma gets really jealous and dances despite a sprained ankle. Very watchable.This song heard a lot in the school bus. Boys teasing the girls. Seemed funny then, maybe not so much now. Shakitmaan illuminates television. Much wondrous viewing. Creative character names. Everyone hooked. Faked stomach ache to avoid school and watch cricket match. Mom totally buys it. Sorry Shaktiman! Some great shows on TV. Just Mohabbat, Antakshari and Aahat, to name a  few. Major Bret 'The Hitman' Hart fan following. 'The Best there is, The Best there was, the Best there ever will be'. Truer words never uttered.

1998: Salman discards shirt, for O O Jane Jana. Much hoopla. Bollywood ages by a few years. Aamir Khan's singing debut with Aati Kya Khandala. Heard everywhere. No, seriously. Friend tries to use it as a pick-up line, girl starts crying and goes home. Awkward dinner table, he reveals later. Movie of the year is Kuch Kuch Hota hai. Everyone buys the C-O-O-L neck chain. Too much, I tell you. And of course, the "Friendship Band" hysteria. High school crush gives friendship band to some other boy. Much sadness. Strange happenings, left side of the chest. Too ignorant to comprehend. Curse Karan Johar for popularizing the concept. Best year for SRT fans. Midas touch, and all that. Two Sharjah innings. Aussies bested throughout the year. Join Tony Greig fan club. Top, top commentator. Knowledgeable, articulate and excitable. Had it all. Movers and Shakers, with Shekhar Suman doing great Laloo Yadav and Vajpayee impressions. India's first late-night talk show. Finally OK to stay awake till 11. WWE fever at all-time high. Great time to be an enthusiast. D-X, The Rock and Stone Cold. Saw many email ids in the future, containing '316'. Hugely entertaining Royal Rumble. Stone Cold eliminates the people's champ, over the top rope. Jim Ross roars,'Stone Cold! Stone Cold, is going to WrestleMania!'. Goosebumps. Stone Cold, the South Park to Bret Hart's Seinfeld. Too frickin' difficult to separate.

1999: Lot of memories. Lee-hesh make it to the finals of all four grand slams. F1 season sees some great action, courtesy Hakkinen, Schumi and Coulthard. Interest stoked in Cars. Kumble takes all 10 at Kotla. First time exposure to FTV on television. Ahem. God bless the cable-wallah. Aamir Khan shines in Sarfarosh. Rehman's magic in Taal. One of the better Bollywood soundtracks. Comedy becomes a mainstream genre. Govinda, Kader Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Paresh Rawal and Johnny Lever, in different combinations. Hip Hip Hurray on TV. Regular watching. Garfield in the afternoon on Cartoon Network. Must-watch stuff after school. MasterCard Family Fortunes, with Roshan Abbas. Another gem. Scooby Doo's All Star Laff-a-lympics. Muttley. Best.Laugh.Ever. Major Video game phase. 64 in 1. Sega. Some great games. Y2K hysteria all around. No computers panicked. Still alive. First recollection of Internet usage.  Just realized that lived on both sides of the Internet age - before and after. Enough material for a new post. Maybe later. Made email accounts all over the place. Too embarrassing to reveal. Yahoo Messenger chat rooms. ASL? End of the innocence era. Yet to hear about IIT. Good times.

Wow, some trip, this. Try it out!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book Review - The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket (Osman Samiuddin)

Disclosure: I've always been fascinated by Pakistan, the cricket team and also, the country. Even though I live in a neighbouring country, quality and unbiased reporting on Pakistan has been scarce in the Indian media, print or electronic. The extreme stereotypes have always been pushed to the front, as is usual, and it needs some effort on your part to learn about the average Pakistani and the society in general.

This book brings together two of my favorite book genres, Sports and History. But to call it a book on "Sports History" would be doing a great disservice to it. Through this book, Osman Samiuddin provides us a window into the various phases of Pakistani society, via the sport of Cricket. Sure, Cricket remains the central theme, but the larger, societal view remains a constant - even if peripheral - feature. And it should be no different, for Cricket in the subcontinent is a microcosm of the Country's prevailing conditions. Maybe it is even more true in Pakistan, where the cricket board has always operated under the control of the government, military or civilian. Thus, it is fair to expect Cricket and society to be inextricably tied to each other.

The book is a fairly long read, but for a book that aims to chronicle close to 65 years of Pakistani Cricket, the author has done a very good job. The rigour is notable, esp coming from a young author whose lifetime perhaps only covers about 60% of the period he has written about. He has covered all major phases of Pakistan cricket and done justice to each one of them with fairly detailed accounts.

The charm of the book, however, lies in the anecdotes and the relaxed writing style, with a liberal usage of quotes and phrases in contemporary Urdu. Historical accounts always seem to bring with them a rather pedantic style of writing, with measured strokes of the pen/keyboard from seasoned pros. Samiuddin, while not being a beginner by any means, brings a certain desi kind of flair to his writing, much as Wasim Akram did to fast bowling. This is where the book scores, in my mind. Books have been written about the subcontinent by Western authors before, but despite their best efforts, it is hard for them to invoke a desi state of mind, to best capture the vagaries of the east. Samiuddin has performed a stellar role in this regard. Separate chapters are reserved for some of the biggest superstars, such as Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram. Intermittent commentary on the Lahore-Karachi equation is fascinating to read as well, embodied by the Imran-Javed relationship. 

The book takes flight, much like batsmen in the last 10 overs, in the last few sections, covering the period from the 1992 world cup to the present. Some of the passages in those sections are truly unputdownable . I went through a marathon 7-hour reading session, interrupted only by Dinner, and never once did it feel laboured. It helped that the stories being told were as captivating, if not more, as the writing style. The 1990s were a time when Pakistan team illuminated the cricket field with their performances and in equal measure were marred by corruption scandals off the field. Perhaps only Pakistan can exist in such a dichotomous universe. There's also a chapter on how/why Pakistan has become an assembly line of fast bowlers, and that most of them have been plucked out of relative obscurity and at a young age. Even if you don't read anything else in the book, the coverage of the 1990s and later is worth your time/money.

In summary, a truly compelling read, possessing both a breadth and depth of coverage. For an outsider like me, it is a great account of the enigma that is Pakistan. It wouldn't be wrong to call it a labor of love, and Osman Samiuddin has provided a great insider's view of how Cricket went from being an urban, elitist pursuit to a behemoth that truly pervades Pakistani society and is one of the few unifying factors in a country with rich diversity, but also plagued by internal troubles for a large part of its existence.

I wish someone would take inspiration and write something similar on Indian cricket!

Goodreads page for the book

Book Review - Three Men on the Bummel (Jerome K. Jerome)

Another highly amusing book by Jerome K. Jerome. This one's not as hilarious as "Three men in a Boat", but it comes close. People have pointed out that the dog is missing, but I didn't feel the absence as much. 

Harris, George and the author, (predictably) in need of a change, decide to take a bicycle trip to the black forest region of Germany. The author has narrated his experiences on the trip in his very unique, British style, which you'll be familiar with, if you've read Three Men in a Boat.

There's a lot of commentary on Germany - the country, its people, its culture, food etc - that you will relate to if you've spent some time there or know people from Germany. Of course, some of that is rendered using the literary device of exaggeration (prominent in British-style humor), but some of it is accurate too. I found some of the descriptions really humorous and in a few places, the book even supersedes its predecessor. A few samples to whet your appetite, here and here.

The eccentric characters, the situation-comedy and the understated, matter-of-fact manner of humorous storytelling are all present, and this book is something that can be re-read multiple times. Overall, I felt that the book was better than sequels are generally known to be and was a perfect filler for downtime, when I just wanted some laughter therapy. Oh, and you can find a free (and legal) version of the pdf from the Project Gutenberg website. Go grab your copy and start reading it now!

Goodreads page for the book

Book Review - The Best of Indian Sports Writing

I got to know of this book through an article from Sharda Ugra titled "Batwallahs", which was featured recently on Cricinfo. I found out that the Cricinfo piece was a modified version of an essay she'd written before, which was featured in this book. 

I was surprised to learn that anthologies of Indian sports writing haven't really existed before this book. For that reason alone, the editor/author deserves a lot of credit.  This book brings together some fine pieces of writing on sports by Indian journalists. The list of contributors includes some of the most famous Indian sports journos, such as Rohit Brijnath, Suresh Menon, Mudar Patherya etc. 

The coverage is spread across a variety of sports, such as Cricket, Tennis, Hockey, Football, Athletics and even Formula 1. Even if you aren't a Cricket fan, this book still has a lot to offer, which came as a very pleasant surprise. The quality of the pieces varies, but there are a few fantastic essays, such as the ones on Leander Paes, Cricket in Kashmir, Eden Gardens and Rahul Dravid.

Overall, a good effort to bring together some of the most famous names in Indian Sports writing. Strictly speaking, it probably isn't the "Best" of Indian sports writing, but is nevertheless a nice compilation, and will hopefully lead to many more such anthologies in the future. There definitely are some fantastic sports writers in India, and we need more books like these!

Goodreads page for the book

Book Review - Dongri to Dubai: Six decades of the Mumbai mafia (S. Hussain Zaidi)

I was really interested in this book because there are so few comprehensive resources elsewhere that detail the history of the Mumbai Mafia. I've tried Wikipedia and Google before, but information was not easily available. For that itself, the writer needs to be applauded.

The primary reason for my 4 rating is the relative lack of historical accounts in the past, so this book fills a rather large hole, I feel. The quality of the writing could have been better, but the author is primarily a journalist, so that can be excused. It reads like a crime thriller in many of its sections, and the fact that the stories are all real-life adds to the appeal of the book.

The author has brought out several interesting historical tidbits, such as the first ever Supari (contract killing) in Mumbai, the origins of the Rampuri knife, the first ever "encounter" by the Mumbai police etc. I haven't seen "Shootout at Wadala", which is supposedly based on the book, but I can't imagine a movie doing justice to the 60-year history of the Mumbai mafia.

Overall, a great read, primarily because it brings out historical facts that are otherwise not well known (For example, Dawood's father was a constable in the Mumbai Police). The writing quality will not blow you away, but the book doesn't aim for that. The author's intent was to provide a historical account of the rise and growth of the Mumbai mafia and he's done a great job at that. Will definitely try out more books by the author (or the associated movies) in the future!

Goodreads page for the book

Book Review - The Man with two left feet and other stories (P.G. Wodehouse)

All this while, I regarded Wodehouse as the master of gentle, matter-of-fact, stiff-upper-lippy humor. I've read many of his Jeeves and Blandings offerings and every single one of them has left me in splits. The man has a way with words.

At this moment, I'm amazed and happy in equal measure to find that (unbeknown to me) Wodehouse possesses other dimensions to his writing - oh praise the lord! I had a major Wodehouse phase a few years back when all I read was one Jeeves story after the other and he managed to keep the humor going throughout. I think I'm ready to have another one. Some of the stories in this book so elegantly describe the feelings of love and romance and the matters of the heart, that all you can do is put down your beer and mentally applaud the master.

After the first few stories, I was disappointed that this book was not turning out to be as funny as the previous ones I'd read, but then I stopped looking for Jeeves-esque humor and enjoying the stories for what they were - and then as they say - magic happened. The latter half of the book has a few stories, which primarily talk about younglings ensnared by love and how things sort themselves out in the end, as they always do in the Wodehouse world. Books and Movies provide us with ample cases of elaborate, embellished, grandiose expressions of being in love, whether it be the resplendent words of the author, or the ostentatious displays of affection in the moving pictures. Meister Wodehouse has presented such a lightness of touch with his words, that its amazing to think how much he can convey with such simple turn of phrase. For all the intense emotions that love can generate, the master has done a stellar job at putting them out without excessively garnishing his words. 

Overall, the book remains true to the Wodehousian philosophy of things working out, on their way to a sweet, happy ending. The introduction for this book quotes the phrase - "God's in his heaven, and all is good with the world" No better way to summarize this book. Hallelujah!

Goodreads page for the book